Peel District School Board Rows Over Muslim Prayers

Peel District School Board  (PDSB) descended into chaos at a public meeting last month over a religious accommodation that has been in place for over a decade.

The controversy dates to last September when the decision was made to replace student-written sermons reviewed by staff with six pre-written sermons.  The change was made to make it easier for administrative staff.

It made Muslim students, and parents unhappy.  They argued it was too restrictive, and the PDSB  reversed the policy decision.  The issue put a spotlight on the overall policy towards religious accommodation.  According to the Ontario Human Rights Code school boards must reasonably meet the faith of their students.  Most schools in Peel comply with this.

The board insists the debate over religious accommodation is over, but opponents disagree.  Mike Bayer is one of the parents behind a group called: Religion Out of Public Schools (Roops).  They’re concerned it sends a negative message involving the visible segregation of students.  Typically, women pray separately from men. “The separation of church and state is fundamental,” he said in a BBC report.

Roops hoped to present a petition calling for an end to religious congregation and faith clubs in the Peel District Public schools.  To-date it has gathered 6,325 signatures.

The debate grew heated at the meeting March 22, with one man tearing pages from a Koran, and throwing them  on the floor.  Christina Dixon, attending the meeting on a different matter picked up on the tension.  She ended up confronting what media reports describe as “violent, bigoted voices.”  Security cleared the room, and the Koran pages collected in order to be returned to a local Imam for disposal.

It’s unknown how much opposition came from parents in Peel, and how much from organized groups such as Rise Canada. The group’s adviser Ron Banerjee says they had nothing to do with the incident March 22.  “we neither support nor condemn” the actions on March 22.

Bayer suggests the Peel board could still comply with the Human Rights Code by allowing students to leave school and attend local mosques.  Ontario Human Rights’ Commission’s Chief Commissioner said the “most appropriate accommodation will be decided on a case-by-case basis.”

According to Peel Board spokesman, officials regularly handle requests dealing with religion  These include groups who ask for accommodation around curricular issues such as sex education, and individuals requesting a quiet place to pray.  It will not be on the agenda in April.  Policy opponents are willing to file a human rights complaint, and fight the Peel District School Board as far as the Supreme Court.